Jews and Muslims commit to get to know each other in Canada

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SHAFAQNA - Representatives of the Montreal Jewish and Muslim communities have agreed to co-operate in areas of common concern and to encourage greater contact between their members.

At an initial meeting on June 30, a group of 27 people, both clergy and lay, held a 2-1/2-hour discussion behind closed doors under the auspices of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), a New York-based not-for-profit organization that, since 2007, has been trying to “build a global movement of Muslims and Jews who are committed to strengthening relations between [the two] communities,” said the program’s director Walter Ruby after the meeting.

In the Greater Toronto Area, the FFEU has worked with the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM) since 2008, organizing annual “twinning” events in November between mosques and synagogues, and between Jewish and Muslim organizations, said Karen Mock, a human rights consultant and adviser to CAJM.

There are similar festive or social events run by local communities throughout the United States and many cities in Europe, under the FFEU’s aegis, Ruby said.

The FFEU’s founder and president is Rabbi Marc Schneier, a former president of the North American Board of Rabbis and vice-president of World Jewish Congress.

Ruby and Mock hope that kind of “grassroots” collaboration will take root in Montreal, under a permanent local joint organization. Quebec is home to approximately 250,000 Muslims and 90,000 Jews.

They convened the meeting in association with CRARR (the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations) and its executive director Fo Niemi, and it was hosted by Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs.

Founded in 1983, CRARR has a long track record in promoting racial harmony and fighting discrimination.

Mock said it was important to bring in a party that is neutral, respected and local to facilitate the initial contact between the two communities.

“If there is anything worse than an American coming in and telling Canadians how to do things, it is having a Torontonian telling Montrealers,” said Mock, who is from Toronto.

The FFEU wishes to be only the “catalyst,” not run the show, Ruby added.

The 27 who accepted their invitation to sit down and talk included both organizational representatives and interested individuals, veterans of dialogue and younger newcomers.

While a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group has existed in Montreal for many years, initiated by the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, it is not very active and has no public profile.

Among those at the meeting were Christian-Jewish dialogue pioneer Victor Goldbloom; Rabbi Avi Finegold, director of the inter-denominational Montreal Board of Rabbis; rabbis Lisa Grushcow and Lionel Moses; Bashir Hussain of the Association of South Asian Communities and a dialogue veteran; Haroun Bouazzi, president of the Association des Musulmanes et des Arabes pour la Laïcité du Québec; Robert Samer Majzoub of the Canadian Muslim Forum; and Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Montreal Muslim Council.

The invitation list was considerably longer, but Mock and Ruby said those who declined did not generally do so out of lack of interest but because they were not available. They include the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith Canada.

Most of those who attended agreed to meet again, probably in early September, with a view to organizing some kind of “twinning” activity in Montreal in November, whose theme this year is “We Refuse to be Enemies.”

A tentative name for the group is the Jewish Muslim Forum of Greater Montreal.

Following the meeting, they went to Montreal City Hall to declare their intentions. Mayor Denis Coderre has made harmony among the religious communities and combatting religious-inspired radicalism a priority of his administration.

Ruby believes co-operation between Jews and Muslims is “vital at a time when there is increasing hostility toward both communities in many parts of the world. They must reach out to one another and stand together against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

He found that the Montreal communities had a common concern during the debate over the previous Parti Québécois government’s proposed charter of secular values, and an interest today in the current Liberal government’s bills 59 and 62, tabled in June, which, respectively, strengthen control of hate speech and ban face coverings in the delivery or receipt of government services.

At the same time, he believes they have to work to reduce any tensions or misunderstanding between their two communities.

While the goal is not to debate the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ruby said it is important that both sides listen to the other on this issue, if the group decides they want to pursue that avenue.

“This is not Kumbaya,” Ruby said. “The Muslim community needs this because of terrorism and the possible erosion of civil liberties. All Muslims should not be blamed for terrorism. They need Jews as allies.

“For the Jewish community, these ties open it up to moderate Muslim leaders, to whom they can send the message that Jews are not your enemy, that we can agree to disagree respectfully.”

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